Sunday, September 11, 2016

Milonga Blues • The Morning After

At present, we do not have a milonga in my city. Dancers who pass through our little “drop in” dance group want one, but they don’t stay with us to dance on until we have a large enough dance family to host a milonga.  We are less than 10 on the dance floor.

To the story. 

I am always glad to get a ride to an out of town milonga, although sometimes this dance gathering can be an emotional roller coaster.

To become better at dancing Argentine Tango, one must dance Argentine Tango! One would think this truth would engender a bit of compassion for new dancers. For some people this is not true. 

To become better at Argentine Tango, it is best to dance with as many partners as possible so that you may improve your skills, create new body memories, challenge yourself and sometimes, have some of those magic moments of connection that make all the lessons and the practise vanish in the glow of a great tanda. 

It is customary in milonga culture for the leader (regardless of gender) to ask the follower to dance. I always suggest new dancers go to a milonga with dance friends from your own town.  

This way, if you don’t get asked for any dances from the local group you have someone to talk to or if you go with someone who will partner you, you know you will have tanda.*

It is customary to have three dances with each partner. The good news there is that even if you are off to a rocky start by the third dance you will have learned a bit more about each other by the third song.  

The bad news is that if you are stuck with a Tango bully, you have only two choices. You can swallow your pride, pray no one is watching and stick it out, or you can say “Thank You” and that should be the signal for the leader to take you back to your seat. 

Last milonga I attended was wonderful in so many ways. The host was very welcoming, offered a nice class to show a new step, and played fantastic music! Most every set brought dancers to the floor. 

Was I at my best? Not at all, however, I won’t become a better dancer if I don’t dance.  I had not been to a milonga for many (more that 4) months. I go to practica weekly and work on balance, posture, leading, following - all the basics as best I can however that is not the same as a fine dance party.   

At a milonga, everyone is nicely dressed, there may be wine, snacks, socializing with Tango friends or Facebook friends you have never met in person. A milonga can be a very happy social event with dancing! 

Here is the rub. There are often very well trained dancers there. Many of those dancers have been dancing for decades. Many have the money for private lessons which are very, very helpful. Privates can cost $75 an hour or more depending on the skill level and experience of the teacher. 

Many are able to go to Tango Weekends (again hundreds of dollars in class fees, hotels and travel costs put this out of the reach of many) and become even better dancers! Many are blessed to have a regular dance partner!

So, given that you may walk into a dance party with dancers of all skill levels, you can only do your best. 

A good leader will be aware of the skill level of his or her partner right away.  If an experienced leader chooses a new follower, that leader, if gracious, will accommodate the follower so that he or she can have a pleasant tanda.* 

To my mind, a milonga is best if those attending are willing to help new dancers improve as kindly and as gently as possible. One of the complaints I hear most often about Argentine Tango is that Argentine Tango dancers are condescending snobs.

I understand the complaint, and while I would not use that language, there are dancers who are so ill mannered that they really can crush a newcomer so badly that the new dancer does not want to come back! 

If you are new, and you are lucky, you will get a first dance with an experienced partner who helps you look good on the dance floor. That first dance may well determine your future for the evening. A kind partner will help you look good, will be present with, and will enjoy the music for the duration of the tanda. Others will see you at your best and may ask for a dance.

If you get a bully or a brat, you may not dance again that night. A demanding partner who holds what ever peculiar value, can make you look as if you have never danced before, as if you are incapable of an embrace, as if you have no skills and be emotionally cold all at once! 

I am still recovering from my encounter with a “Tango bully” at my last milonga. It was just awful. 
I only have three years experience, and my left foot wasn’t as strong as should have been due to turn on uneven pavement, and…………  but none of my short comings should matter.

I have no idea why my leader would not embrace me. (We were on am moving dance floor!). I attempted to step in to and embrace, but he stood there. I was instructed (never to be done on the dance floor) that I had to set the tone of the embrace. That I had to decide how closely I wanted to dance. 

Eventually we embraced, but it seemed to take hours to do so. I believe it was only three or four steps before my leader stopped, attempted to adjust the embrace, dropped my right hand… embraced again and four steps later the entire routine of disapproving my my embrace and posture was repeated. He would jiggle my right arm to indicate displeasure with the tension? 

This kind of stopping & attempting to adjust me in one way of the other went on for two songs. I have never been treated this way. I was embarrassed at best. Yet I made the conscious decision to remain. I stayed smiling, present, willing to learn what ever lesson was at hand and silently praying to the gods of Tango that at some moment my leader would either get over himself or return me to my seat. 

I had lost the inner composure to be able to walk away graciously. I was rather heartbroken. So, at the end of this disaster, he informed me that we did not dance well together. ( surprise! ) Perhaps he was one of those who thinks a person should only come to a milonga when they are somehow perfect at the dance. 

Perhaps he is accustomed to close embrace and cannot dance in salon style comfortably? Perhaps he has danced with his partner so long that he is accustomed to a certain style? I really have no idea why he was so condescending to me. We could have just walked a Tango. 

Luckily my dance friend had a fan and I could cover my face and my embarrassment to some degree. After that escapade I was fairly sure no one would ask me to dance again and it was early in the night. 

New followers, especially those who do really want to dance, who really want to learn and improve should be encouraged by leaders in my opinion. 

New leaders who are challenged to interpret music, their follower, mind the floor and Tango are worthy of applause in my opinion. This is a hard dance to learn. 

I recovered in short order. A visit to the powder room gave me the mental health break I needed to carry on. A milonga can last two or three hours. In many towns  there are more followers than leaders (seems in some cultures “Men don’t dance.”)  so women in my State are learning to lead as a matter of necessity. 

In my city women must lead if there is going to be any dancing at all. I confess I have been dancing lead weekly for the past three or four months and was looking forward to refreshing my skills as a follower. 

Luckily, as I have attended that milonga before leaders who knew me asked for some dances and I left feeling as if my dancing needed improvement. In Argentine Tango I am pretty sure that will always be the case. 

As a facilitator (not a teacher) in my Tango barren city I know that encouragement, reinforcing the best in a dancer, noticing improvements goes so much farther than scorn. Scorn and disdain really do not belong on the floor of a milonga. 

So, if you are a new follower and find yourself sitting at the milonga, consider my story and know that we can learn by watching, and being unasked may sometimes  be a blessing in disguise. 

Ever forward! 

PS:  All is forgiven of course. I am responsible for my own emotions, and that dance just hit me on a hard day.  

Sometimes it seems that people don’t stop to think that dancers come to milonga to enjoy themselves, to have some fun, to make some human connection. 

Sometimes we come for a moment of magic after a hard week, a death in the family, a disaster in the workplace. In other words we come and hope to leave our sorrows at the door!

Having experienced 6 minutes of correction & “education” on the dance floor I will not expand that experience to be relevant to Argentine Tango. I had too many fine moments with kind people and patient dancers to make that error. 

To all who have experienced the disdain of an “accomplished” dancer….. please keep dancing. Yes, those moments are hurtful, but the good dances yet to come are worth it. 

A “tanda” is a set of three Tango songs that are similar in style and tempo.  

Friday, September 2, 2016

Walking to the Cross •  Workshopping Argentine Tango • Jacksonville, Florida

I love Argentine Tango! Had I a car, or a dance partner, I would attend absolutely event Milonga I could manage. I would surely dance at the UF Tango Club every Wednesday, the Class & Milonga in Ormond Beach every Thursday and both Milongas in Gainesville. Alas…. no car, no partner. 

My solution? To rent a dance floor so that those who dance Argentine in town may come out to practice. As well, I am hoping more and more people in Jacksonville, Florida will want to learn Salon Style Tango. There are so many cultural obstacles (it seems to me.) One is the “Men Don’t Dance” obstacle, and I just can’t do anything about that. 

Another obstacle? It seems most people in town have never really been exposed to the dance and so Performance Tango, which is lovely to watch and impossible for most to accomplish, is probably the image most have of this elegant walking dance. No matter! 

I am pleased to say the dance floor is open most every Tuesday from 8 pm -  9pm in Jacksonville, Florida. (detail at blogs end.)  As I am often the dancer with the most experience on the floor (not the teacher by any means) I share what I have learned from the best teachers I have studied with and I am happy to say that some of the people who drop in for a dance come back again and again.

This past Tuesday we were working on “The Walk” which all serious students of the dance work to perfect always. I have to say that it is much easier to pick up the fine points of the dance (gentlemen in particular) if you have the proper footwear. After a few workshops, it will make all the difference in your styling, balance and posture if your shoes are comfortable, flexible, and fit well. 

This last statement was made clear last class when we workshopped “Walking to the Cross” in the pattern “The Basic Eight.” I realize that some frown upon teaching patterns, and I respect their reason for doing so. However, properly used, the positions of the Basic Eight can serve as a language, a common ground for both teacher and student to begin working on steps like the “Ocho Cortado” or the “Molinete”.

At our workshop - luckily - everyone is willing to learn both the leader and the follower roles, regardless of their gender. Learning to dance both roles gives each dancer a greater understanding of how the dances happen, as well a greater empathy for their partner. 

The Gentleman leaders each had a follower to practice with as we practiced the principles of the Basic Eight again, and again, and again until some muscle memory began to happen. Teaching step at a time worked best. Those difficulties I had when I first started leading were easy to spot for the new leaders.  Important points we covered:

  1. Invite your follower to take the step.
  2. Wait for your follower to complete that step before leading another.
  3. Allow your follower enough room to take her step (particularly at the cross.) 
  4. Be aware of which foot your follower is weighted on. 
  5. Maintain a comfortable embrace. 
  6. Breathe!! (It is so easy to get lost in thinking about doing everything just right that breathing seems unnecessary!)

Because we were talking and working things out as a group, I feel that many basic principles of the dance were experienced (rather than heard) by those dancing. An awakening moment happened as well.  

I blog about it because I was very happy to share the moment, and bemused that I had not been able to convey a particular principle of the dance (although I thought I had repeated them often enough) to make the process of “crossing” clear. 

If you are now wondering what I am talking about, I will post links to videos that show these concepts at page end (presented by actually dance teachers).  Impatient? Please scroll down to enjoy the videos and come back.* 

The AhA happened when a male lead wanted to learn the followers part. I obliged. I did each step as I had shown him, and yet when I lead the cross, he did not follow my lead and cross one foot over the other at the ankles as should happen.

We tried again. Again I lead the cross, but nothing happened.  We adopted the practice hold so that I could see why he was not crossing his feet when lead to do so. 

We discovered that the reason was that the principle of walking backwards while stepping behind oneself had not yet registered. 

If you try to dance Argentine Tango and walk as you normally do, I am not sure it is possible. We practice the walk each week as well the vital movement of shifting weight in place. When showing how I learned to walk backwards as a follower (also by watching master followers dance) I learned that not only was I to step backwards, but that I was to step backward placing my stepping foot behind the weighted foot. Rather like walking a balance beam.

My new follower had not yet practiced the followers backward walk often enough to have a body memory of this. When he changed his style of walking so that he was stepping behind himself it was very easy for him to walk to the cross.

I am sure he will be a better lead as he know nows what the follower is feeling as well as how the follower is stepping to accomplish a lovely cross. Of course to teach it in its parts we have rather a choppy experience, but at the end of the workshop we danced several songs until the process became more facile. 

I suppose the short of it is that no matter how well I try to share with words…… body memory is the best teacher. 

Thanks to all who come out to dance Argentine Tango in Jacksonville, Florida. 

We have a very, very large floor, mirrors, barres and joyful people. Look for us at SDS Event Center, 5049 Normandy Blvd, Jacksonville, 32205.  All levels are welcome $10 floor fee pays the rent. 

Now as promised - links to useful videos. 

A favorite:

Another look:

It is important to know that the follower follows! These videos show the basic as a series of steps to an eight count. In Argentine Tango we dance to the music!.